The possibilities of digital aisles are endless for retailers

First published in Retail Week 21 August, 2014 | By Simon Hathaway

It’s easy for retailers to beat themselves up about the shortcomings of physical stores in the face of the onslaught of digital.

As online shopping becomes ever more sophisticated, more of the reasons to shop seem piled in its favour: convenience, choice, interactivity and price. It’s enough to make the manager of the average tatty chain store hold their head in their hands.

“By enlisting touchscreen technology, retailers can give customers access to more of their inventory than would be possible in many stores”

Simon Hathaway, Cheil

But all is not lost. Floor space may be one of the most limiting factors for retailers, but innovation is promising to revolutionise the in-store experience.

The concept of the ‘endless shelf’ is easy enough to understand. Basically it is an interactive shopping wall of the type seen in retailers as varied as Audi City and Tesco’s Seoul subway store. By enlisting touchscreen technology, retailers can give customers access to more of their inventory than would be possible in many stores, creating go-to retail environments in the most convenient locations.

Now the idea is starting to go mainstream. Adidas created a shopping wall that lets sportsmen and women select the right style, colour and size of sports shoe. Marks & Spencer followed suit with its ‘virtual rail’ of revolving fashions and now Argos is joining in by pulping its catalogue model in favour of iPads, with the opening of its first small-format digital store.

Endless aisles in use

Ditching the physical shelf, clothing rails and – one day soon perhaps – big-box store formats in favour of the endless shelf is closer than you think. Samsung is now raising the stakes with CenterStage. Developed by Cheil, The Barbarian Group and Samsung, this ultra-HD in-store system will be used to demonstrate Samsung’s home appliance range.

 Centre Stage

Already in-store in North America and expected in the UK this month, the interactive wall of screens with touch interface lets customers explore life-size fridges, washing machines and dishwashers.

The clarity of the HD images is four times sharper than most TVs, so consumers will feel like they are looking at an actual product and can even change the room setting to get a better idea of what a product might look like at home.

For customers, it’s an amazing interactive in-store shopping experience that clearly communicates product benefits. Retailers will see multiple benefits. It allows them to show a full range in a relatively small space, enabling smaller formats to widen their sales opportunity. It also creates a genuine reason to visit a store, something that many struggle to deliver.

Before I call the revolution in the high street, it’s worth pointing out that the success of the endless shelf will depend on retailers being convinced of its return on investment. At the moment, a lot of digital solutions are being included in refit budgets, rather than sales or marketing. But there will be brands that use this as an opportunity to take a content captaincy role, using it to enhance partnerships with key retailers.

This approach will lead to some interesting conversations between brands and retailers. What seems indisputable is that the endless shelf gives both a powerful piece of kit and that is unalloyed good news for the high street.

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